The Tree Symbol in Islam

~Noble Ross Reat

Throughout Earth and history, man has seen the tree as a link between worlds. The tree as a haunt of malevolent spirits has been feared and avoided; as a home of helpful spirits, consulted and wo
rshipped; as a bridge to heaven, climbed by mythical heroes; as a symbol, ascended by reflection. The tree appears universally in art and architecture, literature and scripture, used by the wise to turn men’s minds to the beyond. Large, living, immovable, the physical nature of the great woody plant called tree explains partly its pre-eminence among symbols. The tree is the largest living thing on Earth, rivaled in sheer size only by mountains and bodies of water in the struggle for man’s attention. Upon examination, the tree embodies life’s mysteries: origin, growth, death. Sprung from a tiny seed in inert clay, the tree grows without apparent nourishment, sprouting anew if cut, dying in winter, living in spring. Even those who claim to understand the tree’s secrets in terms of chlorophyll and photons are amazed by the gigantic column of living matter that is a tree.

Immovable yet supple, the tree became a model for human architecture and a model of divine architecture. In constructing his hut, his miniature cosmos, man relied heavily on the structural lesson of the tree. A vertical pole may be made to defy gravity by planting it deep in the Earth. Horizontal elements may be supported by the vertical pole, creating shelter from the sun and rain. Primitive structures, with roof supports radiating from a central pole, often take on the very appearance of a tree. The tree was a mediator between divine cosmos and human micro-cosmos. Through it man saw how Allâh structured the infinite, mysterious universe, and how he could imitate divine creation on a small scale. The tree was both a practical model for construction and a mystical model of the universe itself; so the upright pole/axis mundi retained its mysterious stabilizing function even beyond its structural function of supporting a building. It became a universal symbol of order in the midst of chaos.

Trees are naturally associated with water, another universal symbol. This was an especially important connection in the arid lands, which have been fertile ground for religions. There, a tree marks water, and water is life:

"We send down purifying water from the sky, that We may give life thereby to a dead land, and We give many beasts and men that We have created to drink thereof." 
(Qur’ân XXV: 48-9).

Waters appears universally in mythology as the undifferentiated substance from which creation took form, the primeval source of being.

"Have not the infidels seen that the Heavens and the earth were of one piece? Then We rifted them asunder, and from the water We made every living thing." (
Qur’ân XXI: 30).[3]

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." 
(Genesis I:1-2).

"There was nothing whatsoever here in the beginning. By death indeed was this covered.… He created the mind, thinking, “let me have a self”.… From him…water was produced.… That which was the froth of the water became solidified; that became the earth." (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 1-2).

From the scientific evolutionary perspective, water is the original context of all earthly life. In the deepest layer of man’s memory is water, and the first amino acids mingling tentatively in a thin organic soup. Imagine a tree, its roots sunk deep in the earth by a spring, infused to the tips of its leaves with life-giving water, the blood of gods and the essence of creation.

The special connection between tree and water is paralleled by the conceptual association, through verticality, of tree with mountain. The vertical dimension is uniquely experienced by man, who moved from the horizontal world of the animals to the world of the erect spinal chord at the same time his mind developed the capacity to perceive a mystical vertical dimension that points beyond.

"Is he who goeth groping on his face more rightly guided, or he who walketh upright on a beaten road?"
(Qur’ân LXII: 22)[6]

All progress, spiritual or material, is to man, upward progress, an extension of his upright spine. Tree and mountain, the two mightiest features in his world, confirm this upward idea by their vertical axes, reflections of the divine axis mundi of mysterious verticality.

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